Just bought a boat? Learning how everything works can be overwhelming. Here's how we did it and stayed sane!

Getting to Know Your New Boat

If you have recently purchased a boat, it’s easy to feel like you have no clue about how anything operates!  Ditto if you’ve begun a new relationship and your significant other has a boat that you’re suddenly trying to learn.

My husband, Dave, has a background in heavy industry (blast furnace supervisor in a steel mill).  He was the hands-on manager, who knew exactly how everything operated and was the first one called in an emergency just for that reason.

And when we bought Que Tal, I began to understand how he operated.  When we bought her, the boat was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and we were in central Illinois.  And when we made the “purchase trip,” the former owner was present and went over many of the systems with us.  I assumed that on our next trip to the boat, we’d head out of the marina for a few days at a nearby anchorage.

Dave had a different idea.  And frankly, his was much better.

Our next trip — actually, the next two trips of about a week each — we spent learning the boat right at the dock.  Together, we traced and sketched out every system on the boat and labeled it all.

To use a galley-specific example, we began with the freshwater system.  We started at the deck fill, and followed the hose down to where it entered the water tank.  Okay, no filters on that . . . meaning that we needed to use a filter on the dock hose.  Then we traced each line out of the water tank . . . here’s one to the freshwater pump . . . hmm, there’s also a foot pump . . . this line goes to the head, this one to the galley  . . . here’s the filter for the cooking water . . . here’s the air vent . . . here’s the drain and the seacock . . . and so on right to the thru-hull.  As you can see in the photo at the top, we labeled every hose one and drew in the direction of flow.

Several things were important about this:

  • We did it together.  We were both learning the boat and often one of us would have a question or spot something that was good for both us to know.  Some systems one of us understood better than the other initially but when we were done we both felt that we knew our boat . . . and that we had the same understanding of it (this last part is important).
  • We sketched it all out (these drawings were left on the boat when we sold her but they weren’t anything professional).  Having to draw it made us know exactly where things went, not just assume!
  • We found a few problems (which we took care of) and things to note that we had to add to our maintenance lists.
  • We took our time and didn’t try to do too many systems in a day.  We needed time to absorb it and we needed time to have fun, too.
  • When we did finally leave the marina and head to an anchorage, we felt confident that we knew the basic systems.  Sure, there was still a huge learning curve about sailing, motoring and anchoring her, but at least we weren’t learning everything at once, which is what we would have done if we’d just immediately left the dock.
  • Since we’d been living aboard Que Tal while learning her, we’d had experience with actually using many of the systems and, particularly, the galley.

Okay, for us it was easy as we’d just bought the boat and neither one of us knew her.  But I know from e-mails that it often happens that there’s a new relationship, one person has a boat (and knows it) and the new squeeze starts going out on it, etc, etc.  Okay, you’re not going to go over all the boat systems on the first date!  But as time goes on and the relationship becomes a little more serious and you’re spending more time on the boat, I’d really recommend trying to go over the systems together.  And I think that sketching them out for yourself — not just looking at drawings that already exist or taking photos — is the best way to really understand how things work.

I also know from our cruising days that there will be some who say “but I’m not mechanical!!  I’m not going to understand it!”  Don’t worry — you don’t have to be super-mechanically inclined to understand the basics of how the boat works.  And by tracing the systems instead of just trying to understand how something works in the abstract, I’ll bet that you find it makes sense.  And once you know the basics of how things work, you’re going to be a lot more confident in using them and dealing with any problems that come up.

While many of the boat systems are galley-related, others aren’t.  Here’s a quick list of the main systems that I can think of to check out (different boats will have different items, leave a note in the comments of any you think I’ve missed):

  • Fresh water system
  • Watermaker
  • Propane
  • Toilets (water intake, holding tank, pump out, discharge, or whatever your system may have)
  • All thru-hulls
  • Engine fuel
  • Engine/transmission/generator cooling water
  • Shore/wind/solar/generator/alternator power to batteries, including the charge regulators
  • Battery switches
  • Breaker panel and any other breakers (we had additional breakers for the windlass, washdown pump, and solar charging — you might be surprised at what you find!)

While it might have been a good idea, we didn’t trace out all of the wiring initially but did as we worked on various items.

Okay, I know it seems like a lot.  Don’t try to do it all at once.  Take it slowly and enjoy learning about your boat.  Remember, you didn’t learn all about living ashore in a day — you just picked it up over a period of years.  Don’t expect to know everything at once about the boat.

While everyone’s learning style is different, Dave and I found that after each of our times on the boat, we’d go back home and read more about the various systems both in books and on the internet and things that had seemed incomprehensible to us before suddenly made sense.  Our confidence at being able to master this new lifestyle just soared!

A final note — most boaters and cruisers that I talk to all say the same thing:  the first year is by far the hardest.  There is such a learning curve.  Other boaters are one of your greatest resources — while it was hard for Dave and me to ask for help, many times we found that there was an easy solution for what we thought was an almost insurmountable problem.  And in time, we became the ones that were offering the help instead of always asking for it!

Just bought a boat?  Learning how everything works can be overwhelming.  An organized approach to keep you sane and having fun!

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  • Gil Lhotka
    Posted at 25 March 2013 Reply

    I couldn’t agree more !!! There is a great sense of comfort that comes with at least knowing where most things are and go on a boat. Not only does it make you feel more confident before leaving the dock or moving aboard, or heading out, but it also ensures you will be a bit quicker at diagnosis and troubleshooting when a real issue comes up.

    Your example of the galley makes so much sense, and if you see water in a certain area of the boat, you can sort of quickly refer to your notes or mental image on the map of hoses and think about what needs to be turned off and how to quickly find the source of that water.

  • Sharon Provenzano on Facebook
    Posted at 26 March 2013 Reply

    Great article, especially for those of just starting out (don’t have our boat yet), thank you for sharing.

  • Sherri Brenner
    Posted at 19 November 2013 Reply

    Thanks so much for this article. We recently purchased a Westsail 32 with the intention of living aboard and blue water cruising. My Husband and I took this article to heart and immediately began going over all of our systems. Wow, what we have learned. Along with mapping out our water and electrical systems, we have identified many water lines that need replacement.

  • Gladys Strickland
    Posted at 19 January 2014 Reply

    Thank you so much for this! I am buying my first boat tomorrow, and as a single female without a lot of mechanical experience, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. This is exactly what I need to do to learn her systems.

  • Sheryl Shard
    Posted at 28 February 2014 Reply

    Great advice that I will pass it along!

  • Harmony Paulsen Burright
    Posted at 28 February 2014 Reply

    Such great advice – wish I had read this early on. We learn as things fall apart 🙂 – hard to stay on the winning side of that equation sometimes.

  • Mary Rehfeldt
    Posted at 28 February 2014 Reply

    On Navy ships piping is labeled (H2O, Jet Fuel, Air) as is the direction of flow. Makes things easier in the event of a mishap or during servicing.

  • Carolyn Shearlock
    Posted at 28 February 2014 Reply

    Thanks Sheryl! And Harmony and Mary!

  • Kevin Baerg
    Posted at 01 March 2014 Reply

    Awesome post and excellent idea! We have just bought a new boat, moving from power to sail – which is another learning curve! I really like the idea of going over the systems together. I find that if my wife knows the system, she becomes a fantastic resource in problem solving down the road! Many times bringing a fresh perspective to boot. 🙂

  • Chris
    Posted at 22 April 2014 Reply

    When we took delivery on the boat we also took hundreds of “before” pictures. Since then when I open up a compartment for some reason, I’ll open up before picture and look for subtle changes I might not spot without a reference. SO far we could buy a new camera on what this has saved us by catching problems early.

  • Kent Takacs
    Posted at 04 December 2014 Reply

    Great ide

  • Samm Souvigny
    Posted at 05 December 2014 Reply

    Ryan Hof why haven’t we done this?= we need too! Would save a lot of hassle

  • Charliss 'Char' Smith
    Posted at 06 December 2014 Reply

    Wonderful advice. My S.O. and I purchased a Cal 33 in March and have been learning each time we board (even when just “camping” in a bajia for the weekend is a learning experience for both of us).

  • Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor
    Posted at 08 September 2015 Reply

    This is what I’ve slowly been doing with our new boat. It’s been great for learning more about the different systems as I go. I’m not a great drawer, so instead of sketching our systems, I’ve been taking photos and using them to make diagrams in PowerPoint.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 08 September 2015 Reply

      Good idea — it’s the same thing of making you really figure it out to have a diagram.

  • Rick Garvin
    Posted at 08 September 2015 Reply

    Christine, good read.

  • Heather Howe
    Posted at 08 September 2015 Reply

    I have saved this very valuable piece of info!!!!!!

  • Anne Ellingsen
    Posted at 08 September 2015 Reply

    We are in that learning curve now. Just purchased 38′ Sabre. Good information

  • Lisa Kelly
    Posted at 08 September 2015 Reply

    We are newbies to our 41 ft Tartan Tock. Lots to learn, but exciting too!

  • Beth Allen McLeod
    Posted at 08 September 2015 Reply

    So smart!!!

  • Debbie Bailey-Laubacher
    Posted at 09 September 2015 Reply

    Good tips! Thanks

  • Lynne Hubbard
    Posted at 15 December 2017 Reply

    Thanks for running this article again! We just bought a Sabre 42 and I’ve been feeling overwhelmed about having to learn the systems. You’ve provided the systematic, common sense approach I’ve needed!

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 15 December 2017 Reply

      Glad it’s helpful and congrats on the new boat! Eat the elephant one bite at a time 🙂

  • Bill Miller
    Posted at 15 December 2017 Reply

    This is an awesome article for anyone entering boat ownership and the nautical world. Things only go wrong when you’re a long way from the dock. Great learning advice and might get you to safe harbor in a jam.

  • Larry Rau
    Posted at 16 December 2017 Reply

    This picture epitomizes the problem with “yachts’, There Is NO Documentation.. not from the factory, and certainly not after the fact. Permanent Laundry markers get my vote.. and so do LISTS and Diagrams Kept In Books.. near the helm ! People do the STUPIDEST THINGS.. on my new cruising boat.. I found a previous owner had buried The Main Circuit Breaker for all the DC systems.. inside a storage locker.. where no human could ever see it ! I only discovered it by tracing out battery cables ! I had to stick a camera in the hole, and photgraph it blind.. to read it;s labels and ratings ! Major Systems and Controls need to have Labels, and They Need to Have LAMINATED CARDS near by, so if the last man standing is a stupid passenger, they can figure out how to operate important controls ! Fisher 30 Pacific Child

  • Cori Grant
    Posted at 17 December 2017 Reply

    Thanks Carolyn. Good read. Save and share worthy for sure.

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